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The talent war: winning the game by changing the rules

Australia is known for being a highly skilled economy, but – as many business owners will tell you – finding good talent isn’t easy.

A recent survey of over 300 Australian businesses, commissioned by oDesk, revealed that 70% find traditional hiring methods are painful, and that talent scarcity is on par with cost as the top reasons why. The fact is, traditional hiring is highly time consuming, costly and when you’re competing for a limited amount of local talent, only a handful of businesses are going to get the talent that everyone wants.

“Why is it so difficult to recruit good talent, when Australia is such a skilled economy though?” I hear you ask. There are a number of theories. One focuses on shortages in specific skills, especially in professional services sectors such as legal, accounting and IT (HAYS). However, some believe rapid business transformation is to blame because businesses require completely new skills (Towers Watson) that create unattainable or unrealistic expectations about finding the perfect full-time employee.

Whatever the cause, businesses are hurting—and the problem extends far beyond the availability of high-caliber candidates. Even when great talent shows up at your door, odds are you may not recognize it; in my experience, the most exceptional interviewers are right only about 60% of the time. Then there’s the time it takes to find the best candidate, and the high cost of putting together a competitive compensation package to attract them. The right people are well worth the time and money, but the expense of being wrong—especially 40% of the time—can be astronomical.

And the war doesn’t end with hiring. When it comes to keeping star workers on board, you face the Silicon Valley competitive climate; even heavyweights such as Facebook and Google are having trouble retaining talent.

So what is a business to do, faced with such stiff competition and limited resources?

The traditional way to hire—fighting over local applicants for permanent roles—is quickly becoming unsustainable. To win the war on talent, you need to be innovative in your hiring approaches. Here’s how:

1) Look for the rough gems

Knowledge and skills matter, but don’t be rigid. There is no perfect employee, and the importance of motivation and personal characteristics is often underestimated. You can teach a chicken to climb a tree, but you’re better off getting a squirrel in the first place. In other words, you can always teach skills, but you can’t change motivation and personal characteristics.

2) Look to alternative staffing models, and leverage different types of workers

Businesses are realizing that not all positions require full-time, permanent employees, and that incorporating different types of workers—from permanent to on-demand—gives their teams exponentially more leverage while keeping the company agile. According to a recent report commissioned by oDesk, Australian businesses on average are hiring 3 online workers per year, and per capita are the global leaders for hiring clients online.

Businesses are also finding that there is no need to restrict their talent search to workers that live nearby, which essentially forces them into a hiring corner. Many are turning to more mobilised workforces and online workers, which erase geography as a limiting factor.

These approaches are not just side effects of a competitive hiring climate and increasingly on demand lifestyles; they are expected to become even more widespread in the future.

3) Be crystal clear about what you want, and what you can offer

Be realistic about what you can expect to find in a single person. Looking for a product manager who also knows HTML and can do a bit of financial planning? You may need to split it up into two different positions to find someone who excels at each. Prioritize what is most important and hire accordingly.

And just because we are in the midst of a talent war doesn’t mean you should oversell or over-promise when talking to candidates. We live in a transparent world, and inaccuracies don’t stay quiet for long—especially once the person comes on board. Candidates deserve to hear the good, the bad and the ugly; and the ones who will thrive on your team are eager to tackle all three.

Fighting the war for talent diverts energy and resources away from what’s most important—running your business. You may not be able to escape the war entirely, but you can fight smarter by rewriting the rules of engagement.

Gary Swart

Gary Swart

Gary Swart is the CEO of oDesk, the world’s largest online workplace—on which more than 35 million hours were worked in 2012 alone. Gary is a thought leader in how best to hire and manage teams, and the future of work. He is passionate about helping small businesses thrive, fueled by his extensive experience working with startups and small businesses that use oDesk, as well as by mentoring entrepreneurs and business school students. Gary has spoken at the Inc. Leadership Conference, The Economist’s Ideas Economy panel, South by Southwest, TechCrunch 50, TiECon, GigaOM’s Net:Work Conference in 2010 and 2011, and at Harvard Business School which teaches a case study on oDesk. His commentary has appeared in a variety of publications including<a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/jjcolao/2012/10/11/welcome-to-the-new-millennial-economy-goodbye-ownership-hello-access/">Forbes</a>,<a href="http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/04/work-3-0-how-the-employment-model-needs-to-change/">TechCrunch</a> and<a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/how-to-hire-the-best-talent-in-the-world/2012/05/08/gIQAPJiQBU_story.html">The Washington Post</a>. He has also appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, including<a href="https://d1u2uhea8ugy8e.cloudfront.net/uploads/wbnews_20121102-1735a2.mp3">BBC</a>,<a href="http://www.npr.org/2012/09/08/160795801/the-skills-missmatch-failing-to-meet-job-demand">National Public Radio</a>, <a href="http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000152617&amp;__source=yahoo%7Cheadline%7Cquote%7Cvideo%7C&amp;par=yahoo">CNBC</a> and <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2013-03-18/does-working-from-home-hurt-productivity">Bloomberg TV</a>. Previously, he led SMB Sales for the Americas at IBM’s Rational Software Product Group, and prior to that served as VP of Worldwide Sales at Intellibank, where he was responsible for leading the sales organization. Gary holds a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Maryland.

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